Caltech: Caltech Faculty Receive Named Professorships, Leadership Chairs

These honors provide faculty with additional resources to pursue research ideas while they continue to mentor future generations.

Each named professorship brings its own distinct legacy. Many professorships, for instance, have long-standing histories and pass a tradition of discovery and exploration from one academic generation to the next, from one colleague to another. A professorship may also provide a faculty member with an opportunity to forge meaningful connections with the philanthropists who made the award possible.

Leadership chairs generate discretionary funds that enable academic leaders to support innovative research projects with potential for scientific and societal impact, and to support Caltech’s educational mission and outreach programs.

Caltech is pleased to present its newest cohort of named professors and leadership chairs.

Leadership Chairs
A portrait of Harry Atwater
Harry A. Atwater
Otis Booth Leadership Chair
Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science
Director, Liquid Sunlight Alliance
Division of Engineering and Applied Science

In July 2021, Harry Atwater began a five-year term as chair of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science. Atwater—whose scientific interests span light–matter interactions in research areas that range from quantum nanophotonics, two-dimensional materials, and metasurfaces to photovoltaic solar-energy conversion and artificial photosynthesis—was also the director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute from 2009 to 2015 and the director of the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) from 2014 to 2021. He currently leads JCAP’s successor, the Liquid Sunlight Alliance, a newly launched Department of Energy research project that seeks to streamline the complicated steps needed to convert sunlight into fuels to make the process more efficient.

He joined the Caltech faculty in 1988.

A photo of Michael E. (Mike) Brown
Michael E. (Mike) Brown
Terence D. Barr Leadership Chair, Center for Comparative Planetary Evolution
Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy
Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences

Mike Brown’s 2005 discovery of Eris, a Kuiper-belt object, caused astronomers to rethink the definition of a planet, resulting in the reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet. Since then, Brown and colleague Konstantin Batygin (MS ’10, PhD ’12) have found evidence of a large, as-yet undiscovered planet in the solar system that is dubbed “Planet Nine,” and helped to pin down where the planet should be found. In addition to serving as director of Caltech’s Center for Comparative Planetary Evolution, he leads the Planetary Ice Chemistry Lab, which explores how ices form, interact, and build planetary bodies throughout the solar system.

He joined the Caltech faculty in 1995.

A portrait of Dean Mobbs
Dean Mobbs
Allen V. C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair, Caltech Brain Imaging Center
Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience
Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences

Dean Mobbs employs brain imaging, computational modeling, and behavioral techniques to study neurobiological systems responsible for fear and anxiety, how people control their fears, and how anxiety and psychiatric disorders disrupt those processes. Using a video game to simulate a virtual predator, he found people prone to anxiety were quicker to flee danger. He is also examining responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Mobbs is an affiliated faculty member of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech.

He joined the Caltech faculty in 2016.

Named Professorships
A portrait of Bobby Braun
Robert D. (Bobby) Braun
Bren Professor of Aerospace
Director for Planetary Science, JPL
Division of Engineering and Applied Science

Bobby Braun is an aerospace engineer and an expert in the development of entry, descent, and landing (EDL) systems. He has contributed to the formulation, development, and operation of multiple space flight missions, and to the development of advanced methods for multidisciplinary design and optimization. Braun’s work has supported the successful landing of all five rovers the United States has operated on Mars, including Perseverance, which safely landed in February 2021. In January 2020, Braun became the director for planetary science at JPL, which Caltech manages for NASA.

Braun served as a Moore Distinguished Scholar at Caltech in 2015 and joined the Caltech faculty in 2020.

A portrait of Bil Clemons
William (“Bil”) Clemons
Arthur and Marian Hanisch Memorial Professor of Biochemistry
Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering

Bil Clemons uses the tools of biochemistry to explore the molecular building blocks of life. The structural biologists in the Clemons lab work on problems related to how membrane proteins are made and inserted into cell membranes and the chemistry of enzymes that catalyze the transfer of sugars onto lipids. The work aims toward basic biological understanding that may lead to the development of novel therapeutics. The group uses a variety of biophysical and structural techniques including X-ray crystallography, through which molecular structures are determined using X-rays; and electron microscopy, a technique that determines structures using images of individual molecules. In addition to his scientific work at Caltech, he is in charge of the biochemistry and molecular biology graduate option and chairs the President’s Diversity Council.

He joined the Caltech faculty in 2005.

A portrait of Chiara Daraio
Chiara Daraio
G. Bradford Jones Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Physics
Division of Engineering and Applied Science

Chiara Daraio’s research is focused on the development of new materials with advanced mechanical and sensing properties for application in robotics, medical devices, and vibration absorption. She and her lab have created devices with useful and unusual abilities such as a material inspired by chain mail that can transform from rigid to flexible on cue, soft robots that need no motors or batteries to move, and artificial skin that can sense temperature changes. She is also the director of Caltech’s arm of a new multi-institution partnership that aims to develop clinically validated technologies to remotely monitor patient health.

She joined the Caltech faculty in 2006.

A portrait of Sergei Gukov
Sergei Gukov
John D. MacArthur Professor of Theoretical Physics and Mathematics
Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy

Sergei Gukov is a Russian-American mathematical and theoretical physicist who connects ideas in math to string theory—a theory that attempts to unify the macroscopic world of gravity with the microscopic world of quantum physics. Gukov, who studied under the notable string theorist Edward Witten, is known for several mathematical concepts that have roles in string theory, quantum field theory, and pure math, respectively: the Gukov-Vafa-Witten superpotential, Gukov-Witten surface operators, and Gukov-Pei-Putrov-Vafa invariants. In recent years, he has been exploring hidden algebraic structures in topology and quantum field theory.

He joined the Caltech faculty in 2005.

A portrait of John O’Doherty
John O’Doherty
Fletcher Jones Professor of Psychology
Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences

John O’Doherty studies the neural bases of learning and decision making in humans. He does this through the use of computational models that are combined with data collected from measurements of human behavior and neural activity. He is especially interested in how humans deploy multiple, different strategies to guide their behavior and determine how the brain decides which strategy should be used in a given situation. O’Doherty is also interested in the factors that govern how humans come to form preference judgments for different stimuli encountered in the world, including food and visual imagery. Recently, he has begun work to establish the extent to which alterations in the brain’s decision-making computations are associated with various psychiatric disorders. O’Doherty is an affiliated faculty member of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech.

He joined the Caltech faculty in 2004.

Early Career Professorships
A portrait of Katerina Chatziioannou
Katerina Chatziioannou
Assistant Professor of Physics
William H. Hurt Scholar
Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy

The research of Katerina Chatziioannou is focused on various ways in which gravitational waves can be used to study the universe and, in particular, some of most energetic (yet only recently detected) phenomena such as collisions of black holes. Through theoretical studies on general relativity and gravitational waves, and the development of techniques and tools to analyze and interpret these new data, she seeks to better understand Einstein’s theory of general relativity to delve into the properties of black holes and neutron stars, where matter is compressed to extremely high densities.

She joined the Caltech faculty in 2020.

A portrait of Shasha Chong
Shasha Chong
Assistant Professor of Chemistry
Ronald and JoAnne Willens Scholar
Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering

Shasha Chong’s research is centered on the study of intrinsically disordered genetic material, also known as the “dark matter of biology.” These proteins, which play a crucial role in the mediation of gene expression, do not have clear structures and thus cannot be understood by conventional analysis. She is developing new optical imaging methods and combining them with other approaches to help understand how these regions interact and how their dysregulation can lead to diseases such as cancer and neurodegenerative disorders—work that may inform new therapeutic strategies.

She came to Caltech as a visiting associate in 2020 and joined the faculty in 2021.

A portrait of Joseph Falson
Joseph Falson
Assistant Professor of Materials Science
William H. Hurt Scholar
Division of Engineering and Applied Science

Joseph Falson’s work is focused on the synthesis and characterization of new and unusual types of materials that display emergent, complex functionalities that may make them useful in next-generation optoelectronics and other devices. Falson and his group grow the materials as thin films, as they are inherently artificial and can enable engineering of otherwise unstable crystals. They are then studied in extreme environments, including at low temperature and under high magnetic fields, where their fragile electronic and magnetic properties can be stabilized.

He came to Caltech as a visiting associate in 2019 and joined the faculty in 2020.

A portrait of Wei Gao
Wei Gao
Assistant Professor of Medical Engineering
Ronald and JoAnne Willens Scholar
Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator
Division of Engineering and Applied Science

Wei Gao and his lab are engineering noninvasive wearable medical devices for monitoring health conditions as well as micro- and nanorobots that may soon enable rapid drug delivery and precision surgery. To this end, he has developed sensors (including some powered by sweat) that can identify minute levels of compounds in human sweat to indicate stress levels and metabolic conditions such as gout, and devices to rapidly detect COVID infection status, severity, and immunity.

A portrait of Elizabeth Hong
Elizabeth (“Betty”) J. Hong (BS ’02)
Assistant Professor of Neuroscience
Chen Scholar
Division of Biology and Biological Engineering

Betty Hong is interested in how animals sense cues in their environment, process that information in their brains, and then use that information to guide behaviors. She studies this problem in the context of olfaction—or chemical sensing via smell—in fruit flies, with a focus on the processing of information at synapses, the junctions where signals are passed between two neurons in the brain, and its ultimate translation to behavior. Hong is an affiliated faculty member of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech.

She joined the faculty in 2015.

A portrait of Urmila Mahadev
Urmila Mahadev
Assistant Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences
Nickerson Scholar
Division of Engineering and Applied Science

Urmila Mahadev is interested in quantum information and quantum computing, with a particular focus in cryptography—the study of techniques for providing secure communications that cannot be read or deciphered by third parties. She has adapted classical cryptographic techniques to quantum computing, and has worked to develop methods that allow classical computers to interact with quantum computers and check whether the quantum computers are producing the correct answers to problems.

She came to Caltech as a visiting associate in 2019 and joined the faculty in 2020.

A portrait of Kirby Neilsen
Kirby Nielsen
Assistant Professor of Economics
William H. Hurt Scholar
Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences

Kirby Nielsen is an economist with interests in experimental economics, behavioral economics, and decision theory. In her research, she runs experiments on human subjects to study how people perceive risk and uncertainty. The results of her research can help reveal how people make decisions in a range of areas, including financial investments and health care as well as managerial decisions in the workplace. Her recent work has focused on understanding why individuals avoid information about future events and how they choose to resolve uncertainty over time.

She joined the Caltech faculty in 2020.

A portrait of Zachary Ross
Zachary Ross
Assistant Professor of Geophysics
William H. Hurt Scholar
Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences

Zachary Ross is a seismologist who studies earthquakes and fault zones. His work blends techniques from machine learning and from statistics to analyze massive seismic data sets to spot the tiniest of earthquakes. These microearthquakes, which occur every few minutes on average, illuminate rich spatial and temporal patterns within earthquake sequences that encode valuable information about the physics of earthquakes and faults. Ross’s work led to the creation of a three-dimensional picture of a fault zone that revealed the cause of a years-long earthquake swarm and identified nearly 2 million previously “hidden” earthquakes that occurred in Southern California between 2008 and 2017.

He joined the Caltech faculty in 2019.

A portrait of Daniel Semlow
Daniel Semlow
Assistant Professor of Biochemistry
Ronald and JoAnne Willens Scholar
Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering

Dan Semlow studies the mechanisms that cells use to tolerate and repair damage to their DNA. He uses biochemical, genetic, and analytical approaches in his research, which also aims to create tools for identifying types of chemical DNA damage. The goal of his work is to create the foundations for therapies that can make cancers easier to treat by making cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy.

He came to Caltech as a visiting associate in 2019 and joined the faculty in 2020.

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